Ukraine Monthly Digest: presidential race kick-off and new national church4 min read

 In Eastern Europe, News, Politics

– December in Ukraine was dominated by the developments following Russia’s November 25th attack on and seizure of Ukrainian navy ships in the Azov Sea that led to the capture of 24 Ukrainian sailors, a move that drew international criticism (read more in our November edition of What’s up Ukraine?). On December 7th, Ukrainian consuls were first allowed to visit the three wounded sailors in Moscow; the other servicemen are currently held at pre-trial detention facilities and are not recognised as prisoners of war.

Meanwhile, the open stand-off proved damaging to Ukrainian trading ports in the Azov Sea, already struggling due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and imposed control over the only entrance to the body of water. A UN General Assembly resolution passed on December 17th called upon Russia to “to refrain from impeding the lawful exercise of navigational rights and freedoms in the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait” and urged it to “to end its temporary occupation of Ukraine’s territory without delay”.

– Arising against the backdrop of ongoing violence, the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine drew extra attention in December. Early last month, the UN announced that more than 3.8 million Ukrainians from the east were in need of humanitarian aid. However, only 37 percent of the requested 204 million US Dollars were provided by governmental, private and individual donors to address the crisis. The European Union pledged an additional 4.5 million US Dollars on December 13th.

– Also on December 13th, President Petro Poroshenko met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the situation in the Sea of Azov, and thank her for her country’s efforts to encourage the release of the sailors held in Russia. The Ukrainian leader also “urged the EU countries to respond appropriately to the act of Russian aggression in the waters of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait and the targeted impediment to freedom of navigation by introducing the so-called Azov package of sanctions”, according to the president’s press service.

– Further on December 13th, EU leaders moved to extend sanctions against Moscow for another six months at a summit in Brussels. These sanctions were introduced in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The leaders also discussed the progress of the Minsk Agreements on Ukraine Crisis.

– On December 15th, three Ukrainian Orthodox churches held a Unification Council to elect a new patriarch for the united Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The country kicked off the official process of gaining its own national church earlier in 2018 in a move to end several centuries of the Russian religious influence in Ukraine. The newly elected Metropolitan of Kyiv and all Ukraine, Epiphanius, went to Istanbul to receive the document granting church independence, or tomos, from Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is the leader of worldwide Orthodox Christian community. The transfer of the tomos happened on January 6th, which is Christmas Eve in Ukrainian Orthodox tradition.

The Vatican announced its recognition of the new Ukrainian church, while the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) predictably denounced the tomos. A spokesperson from the ROC stated the document had been “signed in violation of the canons and therefore [was] not possessing any canonical force”.

Read more about Ukraine’s progress in achieving church independence in the October and November editions of What’s up Ukraine?

– On December 17th, representatives from the EU and Ukraine signed four financial agreements at the Association Council in Brussels. According to the documents, the European Commission will provide financial aid for a variety of initiatives including an energy efficiency program, state employee training, and the modernisation of the vocational education system. In particular, the EU allocated 54 million EUR in financial assistance to the Ukrainian Energy Efficiency Fund.

– A 107-year-old painting that had been stolen from a Ukrainian museum during the Second World War was found in the US. The painting, by Mikhail Panin, “Secret Departure Of Ivan The Terrible Before The Oprichnina”, was discovered in an inherited Connecticut home and put up for auction. The Dnipro Art Museum noticed it in an auction catalogue and claimed the painting; US authorities stated on December 21st it would be returned to the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington.

December 31st marked the start of presidential election campaign, the vote being scheduled for 31 March 2019. Despite this, many candidates have already been running their campaigns for several months unofficially.

The current president Petro Poroshenko has not yet put his candidacy forward, although he is largely expected to do so: he has been emphasizing his role in improving the state of the army and gaining church independence in a series of paid billboard and TV adverts. Still, the polls are unfavourable: while survey results differ significantly, all of them put Poroshenko behind the favourite, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Some other candidates include showman and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, MP with a radical populist program Oleh Liashko, former defence minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, and pro-Russian figures Vadym Rabinovych and Yuriy Boyko.

In addition, to prevent possible interference by Russia into the presidential elections, an international response team has been established.

Main sources: BBC News (EN), Kyiv Post (EN), RFE/RL (EN), Reuters (EN), UkrInform (EN), UNIAN (EN)

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